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Antarctica: The final frontier of travel
Double the size of Australia, but frozen and hostile to humans, is the southern continent set to boom as a tourist destination?
When it comes to adventure travel, there’s the world of zip lines, kayaks and mountaineering beloved of those rugged outdoors types. And then there’s Antarctica.
A frozen, inhospitable wasteland twice the size of Australia, the planet’s southernmost continent might as well be in outer space for all it’s got in common with the rest of the world.
To start with there’s no government. And why should there be? No one lives there.
A few thousand scientists visit every year to study everything from fish with clear blood (the cold makes oxygen dissolve in their blood so they don’t need hemoglobin) to meteorites (the snow and ice that cover 98 percent of Antarctica’s 14 million square kilometers make it easy to find big, black rocks), but there is no permanent or indigenous population.
Antarctica is also the windiest place on the planet (200 kph on a good day, much more when it gets ugly) so there are no flying insects. But life has found a way to survive.
From blue whales (the largest animal on the planet at up to 30 meters across), to sea lions (called as such because of their roar and thick, hairy necks), the wildlife is rated among the toughest, most genetically distinct and beautiful on earth.
For all these reasons and more, Antarctica is the final frontier. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go there.
“You can’t protect what you don’t know,” said the late Swedish-American entrepreneur Lars-Eric Lindblad, who led the first commercial cruise to Antarctica on a Chilean naval ship in 1966.
There are now around 100 tour companies in Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina that will sell you a ticket for an “expedition” to Antarctic stations in the Austral summer (November to March).
That’s when the mean summer temperature in East Antarctica is -20 C, compared to -60 C or even -90 C in the winter.
Fares include return passage, as well as landings in frozen valleys, at the base of volcanoes, historic sites, research stations and accessible wildlife populations.
Clearly an enticing trip, yet visitor numbers to Antarctica, which hit their peak at 46,265 in 2007 and were then projected to double by 2010, instead nearly halved in 2011.
Last year, only 25,319 tourists visited Antarctica -- a reflection of global economic problems and the astronomical cost of sailing through iceberg-infested waters.
A new regulation introduced in August last year that compels cruise ships to use marine gas oil instead of regular heavy oil has made traveling there more expensive than ever before, with the Daily Telegraph reporting a 25 percent fall in Britons visiting Antarctica as a result.
But even this reduced number presents a unique set of challenges in terms of nature conservation in Antarctica.
“Any kind of human presence, noise or pollution has the potential to disturb the wildlife and the ecosystem,” says the Rhode Island-based International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), an umbrella group representing 95 percent of the tour companies operating in Antarctica.
If you’re thinking about crossing the final frontier, IAATO recommends you use one of its member tour operators.
The companies on this list take precautions and protocols that meet or exceed those laid out by the Antarctica Treaty System for visiting vessels -- everything from waste disposal, to the distance you should keep from wildlife, to contingency plans in case things go wrong.
It is, after all, the most unpredictable natural environment on the planet.
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Doing it in style
With 80 crew catering to the whims of 100 passengers and active fin stabilizers controlled by gyro-computers that make for smooth sailing in the world’s roughest seas, the German-built mega yacht MV Orion ranks among the IAATO’s ritziest member ships.
During the five-day journey across the Southern Sea, passengers are treated to a series of lectures on the biology, wildlife, history and complex politics of the region.
Antarctica is claimed by seven different nations signed up to the Antarctic Treaty System.
Passengers also have access to an onboard spa, gym, cocktail bar, lecture theater, boutique and library. If there is a "Love Boat" in Antarctica, this is it.
Sydney-based operator Orion Expeditions runs two very different trips to the Antarctic aboard the Orion.
One departs from the New Zealand port of Bluff and takes in Cape Denison, the 100 grounded icebergs at Port Martin and the penguin colonies of France’s Antarctic Territory.
The other leaves from Tasmania and visits Macquarie, Campbell and Snares sub-Antarctic Island before sailing to the volcanic Ross Island in East Antarctica and finishing, like the first trip, at Bluff.
Captain Vincent Tailard is responsible for the safety of passengers at sea. But the minute they step into inflatable tenders and head for the ice it’s over to expedition leader Don McIntyre.
“Whenever we take passengers off the ship, we position safety and survival gear in strategic locations in case we get separated from the ship,” he says.
“The weather can turn very bad very fast, so we have to be prepared to camp on shore with 100 people for up to 36 hours. I’ve had plenty of life-threatening situations in Antarctica but never one with Orion.”
Still, it pays to be professional and ready to respond. “The closest we came to it was at Port Lockroy when pack ice moved into a bay and we were separated from the ship for four or five hours,” says McIntyre.
“But we did a solid risk assessment beforehand, so we were prepared. We landed on a rocky shore, led the passengers over the pack ice then recovered them and the safety gear. Everyone was accounted for.”
Risk aside, McIntyre says an expedition to Antarctica would appeal to almost anyone.
“Every passenger who goes there becomes an ambassador because it’s really like being on another planet,” he says.
“The photographs and documentaries can never do it justice -- it’s a hundred times better than that.”
Orion Expeditions, 8 West St., North Sydney, New South Wales, Australia; +61 (0) 2 9033 8777; www.orionexpeditions.com.
Twin-share fares start at AU$22,485 (US$21,960) per person in a stateroom and up to AU$40,555 per person in an owner’s suite.
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On the cheap
The most popular expeditions to Antarctica focus on West Antarctica, specifically that familiar, long tail trailing out toward South America known as the Antarctic Peninsula.
It’s a more affordable option. Sailing two days from the tip of Argentina across the Drake Passage, ships face fewer navigational and logistical challenges and are, therefore, cheaper to operate.
But the downside, says McIntyre, is that, “the peninsula is like the tropics compared to East Antarctica.”
Still, there’s plenty of wildlife to see.
In February, British filmmaker Stuart Morton got a last-minute deal for US$4,000 on an 11-day expedition from Ushuaia in Argentina aboard the MV Antarctic Dream, an ex-Argentine Navy ship now operated by Chilean tour operator Antarctic Dreams.
“I saw humpback whales, killer whales, lots of sea lions, three kinds of penguins and lots of birds,” the 35-year-old Morton says.
“We went out on zodiacs to places where there were huge colonies of them. The seals were a bit aggressive, but the penguins you can pretty much touch. They’ve never seen humans so have no fear of us. They smell terrible though.”
And you don’t have to be the insanely adventurous outdoors type to go to Antarctica, Morton offers.
“Most of the passengers are retirees. There are a few backpackers but not many, which is a bit of a shame, but I still think it was well worth it,” he says.
“You wake up in the morning and step out of your cabin to breathe the world’s cleanest air and there are no people, just silence, around you. Being out there, it’s a kind of nothingness you just can’t explain.”
Antarctic Dreams Expeditions, Ebro 2704, Suite 602, Santiago de Chile, Chile; +56 (0) 2 481 6010; www.antarcticdream.com. Eleven-day journeys depart from November to March, with cabins ranging from US$6,900-11,450 per person.
Flight-seeing on ice
Finally, there’s an even cheaper way to see Antarctica -- with Melbourne-based Antarctica Sightseeing Flights.
Departing three or four times a year in a Boeing 747 leased from Qantas, the company flies southbound travelers right over the ice.
Four hours after takeoff, the plane hits the South Magnetic Pole and veers southeast along the coast of Australia’s Antarctic Claim.
It then detours over the Ross Sea for before heading back to Melbourne -- all told, a stunning 12-hour journey.
“The most incredible thing about the trip was seeing the ice break over the ocean,” says Kellee Cruse, a 39-year-old Australian jewelry maker who flew to Antarctica last year.
“It makes you feel like you’re back in an ice age. It’s like a forgotten world over there.”
Antarctica Sightseeing Flights, 35 Seymour St., Ringwood, Victoria, Australia; +61 (0) 3 8814 5701; www.antarcticaflights.com.au.
The next tour departs December 31, 2012. Tickets run from AU$999 (US$994) for an economy class ticket in the center of the aircraft to AU$7,299 for first class.
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